Kage Baker’s last novel set in in the Anvil universe was The Bird of the River. It was composed three or four years before she wrote it, in the the bar of a nice hotel where we were spending the weekend for a science fiction convention. I knitted, she wrote; we drank Singapore Slings and gin and tonics, and plotted out an entire novel in three days.
It was in the Missouri side of Kansas City. It was a lovely convention, but it was decidedly a private party – the conventioneers were delighted to come together to celebrate, and it was a climate of in-jokes and nursery games. Kage,as the Guest of Honor, was duly included in all the fun and games, but no one was really explaining them – they were having too much fun themselves. And Kage was perfectly happy to be left to her own devices between her GOH responsibilities, so everyone involved had a great time.
And Kage, as was her habit, talked a fan into taking her to a local museum.
In Kansas City, there is an astonishing museum. It’s dedicated to the steam ship Arabia, which was sunk by an underwater snag in the Missouri River in 1856. She sank with over 200 tons of cargo aboard her, a cornucopia of domestic and small industrial goods destined for the western wilds of the Missouri Territory. She was judged unsalvageable and her position soon forgotten. And she lay unfound for over a century, intact and full of cargo.
This was aided by the fact that one of the properties of the Missouri River is that it changes course constantly. In these modern times, hydro-engineers try to keep it to its bed, but the riverine urge to travel still alters the water’s course all over the adjoining lands. By 1986, when a group of intrepid treasure hunters set out to find the Arabia, the maps all indicated she was probably entombed – in a corn field.
And so she was. They dug her up, and the museum was built to honor and house her, and show off the treasures of her cargo. It’s an astounding snapshot of what the smallholder on the edges of American culture wanted and needed to survive just before the Civil War. Everyone should see it, re-enactors especially. At the very least, explore these sites:
You will learn more about 19th century America, which will be good for your souls and be marked in the positive column of your karmic record. You will also see precisely what Kage saw, that inspired her to write The Bird of the River.
The plot and characters came out of her head, itself a chest of Oriental pearls. And she set it in the Anvil universe, because she wanted to use some exotica that wouldn’t have fit into Missouri very well; river gods, demons, aristocratic vendettas. She felt the Missouri River was too wholesome for those.
“Now, if it was New Orleans and the Mississippi,” she mused, toying with the light-up red trolly car on the end of her pen, “gods and demons would fit right in. Assassins and vendettas – vendetti? – would work too. But this river is more Norman Rockwell and less Maxfield Parrish. The Arabia was a working boat, full of practical stuff.”
“Three thousand rubber shoes are your idea of practical?” I asked. I was remembering a display case full of shiny black shoes, all sizes, mostly brogues and Mary Janes, all made of new-fangled Vulcanized rubber.
“Not all in one place, no, you silly. But sold up and down the length of the river? Oh, yeah.”
In the end, she couldn’t fit those rubber shoes on the feet of the Children of the Sun. But she was still determined to make her Bird of the River a practical ship. So she made her a maintenance vessel; and to honour the Arabia, one of her main tasks was to be cleaning up hidden snags … and drowned headless noblemen, and scuttled pleasure barges …
It spun out almost effortlessly over the three days there. Other bits of it arose from the countryside we crossed by car when the convention was over, driving across Missouri from Kansas City to St. Louis – past towns built of white limestone of the edges of rivers running to join the Missouri, through thunderstorms and fireworks factories, past the enormous whirling confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. The story acquired funnel clouds drawn in the margins, and home-made barbecue sauce stains from a river town engulfed in oaks and hickory trees. It was written over Kansas City steaks and hot weather drinks with umbrellas in them.
Add some of all of that, and the green humid perfume of the rivers, and you’ll come close to what it was like when Kage first came up with the story. Or you could water your garden and go sit in the midst of it on these warm afternoons, a Singapore Sling to hand, and re-read the book.
Because Summer will be here soon.